Does moral theory create extremism? No.

The Philosopher’s Beard has a post up asking “Does moral theory create extremism?” As usual for TPB, it’s a thoughtful and interesting essay; this time around, though, I found myself disagreeing with a fair amount of it.

First, TPB does a great job of delineating moral theory and the moral reasoning that most of us use in everyday life. Moral theory is “what most moral philosophers spend our time doing,” and is generally an attempt to assess different moral systems in terms of “theoretical virtues,” namely consistency, clarity, and other desiderata that would get you a stronger essay grade from a college professor. In contrast, how we actually actually make moral decisions is not nearly as consistent, principled, or focused as moral theory usually strives to be.

So far so good. But TPB runs a bit far afield when he* claims that the tensions between practical moral reasoning and moral theory tends to create “moral extremism,” which he defines as the combination of “a narrow perception of an issue in black and white terms with a structural inability to consider it from any other perspective.”

TPB writes:

Theories are able to give consistent answers to questions because they are set up to assess questions in the same way every time. In other words, any good (logically coherent) theory has its conclusions baked into its assumptions. And they are able to give precise answers because they only consider certain information. To put this another way, theories introduce clarity to moral reasoning by excluding most of our prima facie relevant moral concerns and intuitions from being counted.

TPB then gives two examples – abortion and animal research – where the exclusion of different perspectives leads to opposing sides talking past each other. Regarding the abortion debate, he describes how one side regards a fetus as a human being, the other regards it as part of a woman’s body, and therefore the two theoretical sides polarize the debate:

The bemusing feature is not that they are based on false intuitions, but that by opting for the rigour and clarity of a moral theory approach to the issue (albeit an extremely crude version of this), other seemingly relevant aspects are systematically excluded. … these two theoretical camps dominate the moral, political, and legal debate about abortion, despite the fact that they are, by construction, mutually exclusive. Proponents of either theory are structurally unable to see the other side’s point of view because their accounts can assign no value or place to each other’s central moral intuitions. The public ‘debate’ that results from this theory-driven extremism rather resembles a shouting match across a chasm than an effort at intellectual engagement.

I think that TPB here is making two errors, one analytical (i.e. regarding the philosophical arguments on their merits) and one social (a misrepresentation of the role of moral theory in public debates). The analytical problem is in part that TPB is creating a straw man: to summarize the abortion debate, he takes two camps of long and varied moral, scientific, and metaphysical arguments and reduces them into a pair of syllogisms. Then, he says it’s a problem that the two camps exclude so much.

It may be true that proponents of abortion rights are likely to have different opinions on whether a fetus is a human person than abortion opponents. But it’s hardly the case that serious moral thinkers who discuss abortion create theories that ignore the question to begin with. The line of causality can just as plausibly run the other way: first, a thinker raises the issue of what moral status to give the fetus, and then decides what theoretical framework fits best – whether, for example, the issue is one of murder or of women’s rights. Or, the argument about abortion could be made in a way designed to hold true no matter what designation we assign a fetus, as Judith Jarvis Thomson famously did in her essay A Defense of Abortion.

Then, there’s the popularity of moral theorists that TPB perceives: “the authority provided by rigour and clarity means that theorists tend to dominate public debate and thereby exclude the non-theorised opinions of the great majority.” There’s very little doubt in my mind that when it comes to the abortion debate the vast majority of the country does not feel like the discussion is dominated by academic moral philosophers. Now, I am a strong proponent of rigorous moral debate outside of academia, and I think that nuanced and sophisticated points are made in public debates all the time. But it seems like a misrepresentation to say that American politics is being radicalized by “polarized political factions whose representatives demand that you choose a theory.” It’s hard to make a more convincing rebuttal of TPB’s claims about the social dominance of moral theorists, in part because he does not specify who he considers a “representative” of the theoretical establishment and gives no examples of particular forums that are dominated by theoreticians. But given the many other proposed factors behind the polarization of political issues in the U.S. – polarized communities, polarized media, polarized political primaries – TPB has his empirical work cut out for him.

Academic theorizing definitely does not correspond perfectly with the act of moral decision-making in everyday life. But the removedness of moral theory can be a great asset, as TPB acknowledges – it can show people how their own practices are in tension with moral values they claim to have, for instance. And my experience with moral theorizing is nearly the opposite of the radicalism he describes – I’ve seen many who engage with moral theory plagued by an ability to see all sides of an issue, which inhibits decision-making. While decision paralysis itself is undesirable, I think the propensity to think about multiple factors and perspectives is something generally to be encouraged, and is a strength of moral philosophy. When it comes to political radicalism, I think we could use more exposure to great moral theories, not less.

*TPB blogs anonymously, but as he promises “I have a beard,” I am going to assume the male pronoun.

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